How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
Ever wonder what leadership is really all about? Is it something that can be sliced and diced and codified in a competency framework? Is it something different or more than that, something more holistic, profound and relational? I had this short article published today: http://www.aboutleaders.com/bid/175128/Leadership-as-a-Relational-Dynamic. Let me know what you think!
What makes a great influencer? What influences you? What have been your best and worst experiences of influencing other people? What have you found makes the difference?
Influence is sometimes described as the art or psychology of persuasion. It’s about creating a shift in a person or group’s beliefs, thinking, feelings, attitudes, actions or behaviour. We’re influencing all the time through our everyday social interactions but not always in the ways we would hope for. For example, as you read what I’m writing here, your own views about influencing will be affected at some level. It could strengthen your existing beliefs or create a shift, no matter how small. The art of influencing is at heart about enabling a shift in the direction that the influencer hopes for.
This implies at the outset that influence demands intentionality. It implies a deliberate act, a strategy or sorts, with a particular goal in mind. This intention is not always clear, however, even to the influencer. We’re not always sure what influences our own behaviour, even if we rationalise or post-rationalise it at a conscious level. So, for instance, I could tell and convince myself that I’m behaving or acting in a certain way because that explanation feels more personally or socially acceptable, even if deeper factors or motivations are at work at subconscious or unconscious levels.
Assuming for argument’s sake that I have a clear and conscious intention or goal in mind, what can I do to create a shift in another towards my desired direction? As a leader or manager, I could use my positional power to demand a change in action or behaviour. It could result in compliance to achieve reward or avoid punishment, or resistance as an effort to avoid the change. It’s unlikely, however, to change the other party’s underlying beliefs, values, attitudes etc. in the way that I may hope for, especially if I want to achieve transformational and sustainable change.
This is of course one of the critical challenges of change leadership: how to move a person or group to a psychological place where they choose freely to change without coercion or external pressure. It’s the same kind of challenge faced by trainers and marketeers: how to influence people’s attitudes, choices and behaviours without access to formal power or authority to ensure those changes happen. It begs interesting and important ethical questions, e.g. how to achieve a shift without unethically manipulating people or groups, especially those who are vulnerable.
In my experience, a key factor in influencing is understanding what matters most to other people. This is often the starting point for market research, surveying targeted populations to find out what they choose and why. If I understand what matters to you, what you value most, I can frame my product, service, idea, argument, language etc. in terms that will make it feel familiar, acceptable or attractive to you. In advertising, I may use people or images you consider iconic, admirable, inspiring or trustworthy to build a psychological bridge towards you – and to entice you to cross it.
The same principles apply to influencing in the workplace. Recognising that employee engagement influences talent retention and organisational performance, many organisations conduct staff surveys, pulse checks, focus groups etc. to understand how the organisation feels to those who work for it. Such surveys provide opportunity for leaders and staff to influence the organisational culture and climate and for staff to influence what leaders pay attention to. Some of the more sophisticated surveys check ‘what matters most to you’ alongside general satisfaction scores.
Many organisations also use a whole variety or initiatives including competency frameworks, performance management systems, reward and recognition strategies to identify, publicise, affirm and reinforce behaviours that leaders consider most valuable for the organisation. All of these processes aim at some level to influence perspectives, attitudes and actions. The leadership agenda involves not only understanding what matters most to staff but influencing what people will choose in order to align personal choices and decisions with what the organisation wants or needs.
So, what are the key factors that enable us to be effective influencers? Firstly, have a clear and explicit intention. If we have mixed or hidden motives, we lack integrity, others will pick it up intuitively and it will undermine trust. If you’re unsure what your true motives are, reflect on this honestly with a critical colleague or friend beforehand. Secondly, research and understand what matters most to other people. If we can tap into others’ language, culture, values and goals and address them well in what we propose, we are more likely to build bridges and achieve win-win solutions.
Thirdly, have a clear sense of what we want others to think, feel or do differently. This enables us to design and communicate messages clearly. I often ask myself before presentations or meetings, for instance: ‘What do I want people to think, feel and do as a result of what I do today?’ Fourthly, reward changes in ways that others value and appreciate. If we ask those we seek to influence, for instance: ‘How do you want to do this?’, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ or ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, it demonstrates humanity, relationship, humility and respect.
Philosophically and practically, I find myself quite conflicted over the leadership competencies agenda.
On the one hand, we use a capability framework at an INGO where I work for assessment and development purposes and, on the whole, it provides a useful touchstone for these purposes. It was derived from observations globally of what seems to make people successful within the organisation's cultural environment (although I’m not sure what criteria were used to denote ‘success’). It provides a basis for awareness raising, focused conversation, critical reflection, practical action (e.g. developing new insights or ways of doing things). So, pragmatically-speaking, it does prove a useful tool.
On the other hand, there’s something about analysing leadership competencies that can feel reductionist. I think that’s where my underlying discomfort lies. I’m reminded of a philosophy lecturer during my theological studies who introduced the idea of a beautiful rose. "A poet tries to capture and express the rose’s beauty in colourful, creative language. It’s about its intangible qualities – beauty, essence, spirit, impact." Perhaps, by analogy, we might experience this phenomenon in leaders as personality, character, charisma, X factor.
What’s interesting for me is that ‘beauty’ isn’t just about the rose – it’s about how I perceive, experience and respond to it. It’s not just what I see, it’s what I attribute to it, what I feel and do as a result. By analogy, I wonder if what I regard as ‘good leadership’ in a particular time and context is really the result of a complex combination of personal qualities emerging and interacting in a specific social/political/cultural environment. It’s influenced by what I notice (and don’t), what I attribute success to (and don’t), what happens when the leader interacts with people’s history, culture, values, expectations etc.
This may explain why different leadership qualities prove successful in different contexts. I’ve had personal experience of this. For example, I once led a highly successful youth group in the North of England. I tried applying the same leadership style and approach with a youth group in the South and it was a terrible failure. I’ve also noticed how in the same situation, different people respond to the same leader’s leadership differently. One person is inspired where another feels disengaged. As with the rose, there’s some kind of dynamic interplay between stimulus and responder.
This makes me wonder which, if any, leadership qualities are universal and which, if any, are contingent on context.
Staying with the rose analogy, the scientist dissects the rose in order to understand and explain it. This form of inquiry can explain the rose at a basic structural level but it won’t explain why people buy roses for their partners. I guess, for me, defining competencies can feel more scientific than poetic. There’s something about the dissecting that risks missing or even diminishing the quality of the whole.
I’m reminded of Nevin’s seminal work on Gestalt consulting: "The whole is more than the sum of the parts, as the arrangement of configuration of the parts is what gives an object its unique quality. In the case of singling out a tree in a park, the object is perceived almost immediately as a tree even if our attention is drawn to some parts more than to others. Studying only isolated, single parts of the tree (trunk, roots, branches, leaves etc) does not allow one to experience that which we call ‘tree’."
I've been prompted to consider two other issues which are related to the above. Firstly, whether it’s more meaningful to speak of leadership qualities and management competencies than leadership competencies. I'm not sure, but 'quality' somehow holds for me that sense of mystery that lies beyond transferable capability.
Secondly, whether we should inquire into what factors are making the difference in a specific real time and context rather than focusing on distilling and codifying generic leadership qualities or capabilities ‘out of context’. In other words, should we pay more (or equal) attention to evaluating leadership on the basis of what is achieved, what its effects are, which values are safeguarded etc. rather than the simple (in theory, if not in practice) qualities or capabilities the leader displays? It’s a difficult one. What results do we attribute to the leader and what do we attribute to other causal or contributing factors?
I’m reminded, by analogy, of the difference between Investors in People and Best Companies. Investors in People evaluates inputs (e.g. specific processes and practices) with the assumption that prescribed inputs (‘good practice’) will lead to desired outputs. By contrast, Best Companies evaluates whether desired outputs (staff engagement) have been achieved in a specific organisation and inquires into what has contributed to those results (e.g. confidence in leadership during tough economic times).
This poses interesting questions and challenges for leadership (as distinct from management skills) development: whether it’s possible and, if so, what we are trying to develop and how best to go about developing it.
The approach we’ve used in the INGO has focused mainly on developing cultural aspiration, holding ‘leadership conversations’ (getting leaders together to chat about what’s real and important for them and seeing what emerges), inviting stakeholder feedback, participating in executive coaching and action learning. I would love to hear how others are approaching leadership development and to draw on their ideas and learning too.
One final thing occurs to me. I've noticed how many leadership characteristics could be regarded and framed as essentially self-balancing. For example, visionary yet realistic; flexible yet robust; inspiring yet listening; humble yet assertive; courageous yet empathetic; strategic yet grounded. I can draw these ‘polarities’ as spokes on a wheel with 'person' at the hub and 'context' at the rim. There's something about what mode or quality influences change in a specific environment. I'm going to give more thought to that.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.